Casey Tolan

FLINT, Mich.— It's a question Flint residents have been asking each other for weeks:

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"Have you been tested?"

As this city reels from revelations that its residents were exposed to dangerous levels of lead in their tap water for years, while government officials did nothing about it, locals are struggling to figure out if they and their families have been exposed.

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Even small amounts of lead in the blood can have a lifelong impact on children's mental health and development. But most Flint residents don't know for sure if they or their children have gotten lead poisoning. Blood testing for lead isn't paid for by all insurance plans, and 14% of city residents are uninsured, according to census figures.

On Saturday, about 300 people packed into the city's Masonic Temple for a free blood testing event. A line snaked out the door, and families sat on the bright red carpet while they waited. Some had taken sick days from work to come and get tested, to figure out if they're really sick. A few floors down, an African drumming group was holding a practice, and the beats echoed through the stairwell.

The testing was paid for by the Detroit law firm of Herbert Sanders, a lawyer who has argued against Michigan's emergency manager law at the state Supreme Court. He was signing up people for potential lawsuits against the city and state, but said that retaining him wasn't a condition for getting a free blood test.

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“People need to be tested,” Sanders told me. “People deserve to know their circumstances, their children’s circumstances.”

Herbert Sanders, the lawyer who paid for the blood testing.
Casey Tolan

State officials have said that all Flint children under six years old should be tested, and the county health department is planning a series of free testing events. Just because a test comes back negative doesn't mean you're healthy, though; lead leaves the bloodstream after 30 days, but stays behind in bones and tissues. Some doctors say officials should consider all of Flint's nearly 9,000 children to have been exposed.

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As they waited to be tested this afternoon, Flint locals traded horror stories of how the crisis had affected their lives: beauticians being blamed when their clients’ hair fell out, schools refilling plastic water bottles with contaminated tap water, hospitals unknowingly giving patients infected water.

That last one, at least, was true: McCarren Hospital confirmed yesterday that officials had detected legionella bacteria in their water source. Ten people here have died of Legionnaires' disease in the last year and a half.

“If I’d have known, I would have been drinking milk,” said Adam Harvey, who spent a week in McCarren last year.

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Patty Hart said she had been having problems with her legs, so three weeks ago, she ran some water for a warm bath. She turned the tap on, walked away, and when she came back, her tub was full of dark brown water.

Patty Hart shows a photo of her bathtub.
Casey Tolan

“It was disgusting,” Hart said, passing around her phone to show the photo to people standing nearby. “They’re saying that the water is safe now. How can this be safe?”

The water doesn't look like that every day, Hart said. It’s unpredictable, appearing totally clear some days but smelling “weird.”

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“This shouldn’t happen in America,” Hart said.

Kevin Palmer, 38, said he was done with Flint. He was packing up his five kids and moving to Ohio, even though that meant losing $80,000 on his house.

“We’re out of here,” he said.

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One of his sons used to be very active, Palmer said, and now just comes home from school complaining about headaches. Palmer thinks it might have to do with lead poisoning—but none of his family has been tested, so he's really not sure.

That's a common refrain. In Flint these days, any kind of medical problem—from aches to rashes to changes in behavior—seems like it might have to do with the water, like it might be lead poisoning.

“We all should be worried because of what’s going on,” said Elaine Dantzler, 63, as she walked out of the testing room, wearing a commemorative hat for Obama’s 2009 inauguration. “I’ve lived here all my life and I’ve never seen anything like this.”

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I asked her who she thought was responsible. Her eyes narrowed. “Snyder,” she said with a near-hiss, referring to the governor, Rick Snyder.

Casey Tolan

The testing event was scheduled to take place between 10 a.m. and 1 p.m., and there were already people waiting outside when Sanders came by at 8:30. He had brought supplies to do 300 tests; by 10:30, a handwritten notice had been taped to the front door: “Sorry blood testing over.”

When she walked up to the door and saw the sign, Alicia Shaver shouted out in frustration. “I’m angry,” Shaver said. “They only had 300 tests for a city of 100,000? How are you supposed to know if your kids are safe?”

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Her insurance doesn’t cover blood testing for lead poisoning, Shaver said. She worries about her five-year-old daughter Madalynn, who wore big red sunglasses and clutched a copy of “Charlotte’s Web.”

Alicia and Madalynn Shaver.
Casey Tolan

Shaver has been taking Madalynn to shower at her mother’s house, outside city limits. And the whole family has been affected.

"My dog went bald from drinking the tap water,” Shaver said.

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Casey Tolan is a National News Reporter for Fusion based in New York City.